Indoor Movement and Orientation with Vision Impairment

Can I learn to travel safely and independently if I've lost some or all of my vision?

If you've had vision throughout your life, you've probably used it to obtain most or all the information you need to get around. Now that you have a vision loss, however, you may wonder how you can accomplish the things you used to do by looking, such as

  • Locating the doorway to your bedroom or basement
  • Avoiding an obstacle in your path, either indoors (a coffee table) or outdoors (a trash can lid on the sidewalk)
  • Detecting the edge of a curb or step so that you don't trip or fall
  • Locating a store or an office building
  • Using buses and crossing streets

All of these tasks can be done safely and efficiently by using what is called "non-visual information." Using non-visual information means using your other senses, such as hearing, touch, smell, and the perception of your body's position and movement.

You can use information from your senses to determine where you are and what is happening around you. Some examples of using non-visual information are as follows:

Use Your Hearing

Everyday sounds can provide many clues about your surroundings, including:

  • The hum of the refrigerator in your kitchen
  • Traffic sounds in the street outside your home
  • Pedestrians passing you on the sidewalk

O&M instruction can teach you to:

  • Use the hum of your refrigerator or traffic sounds as "landmarks" to help you determine where you are, both inside your home and outdoors;
  • Determine the direction of a sound and its distance from you;
  • Use traffic and pedestrian sounds to determine the width of a street, the location of a traffic signal or stop sign, and the direction to face when crossing the street;
  • Use echolocation to sense objects (such as a tree, a wall, or a building) in your environment by learning to interpret the echoes and sounds reflected from those objects.
  • To experience echolocation yourself, try closing your eyes and making a sound while you move your head closer to a wall. Notice how the sound changes. Some people describe the sound as more "echo-y," while other people "sense the presence" of the wall in ways they can't describe and are surprised to discover it is their hearing that is "sensing" the wall.
  • Echolocation used to be called "facial vision" because the sensation often seems to be in the perception of the skin rather than the ears.

For more information about hearing, see Maximize Your Sense of Hearing and All About Hearing and Vision Loss.

Use Your Sense of Touch

The sense of touch can provide many clues about your surroundings, including:

  • Textures under your feet indoors, such as the carpet in your living room and the linoleum or tile in your kitchen
  • Textures under your feet outdoors, such as grass, asphalt, or broken concrete
  • The warmth of the sun on your face and clothing.

O&M instruction can teach you to:

  • Determine when you've entered the living room by feeling the carpet under your feet
  • Determine when you've entered your driveway by feeling pavement or gravel under your feet or cane
  • Determine the direction you're facing by feeling the warmth of the sun on your face and body.

Use Your Sense of Smell

The sense of smell can provide some clues about your surroundings, including:

  • The scents of deodorizers, cleaning supplies, sawdust, pizza, leather, and baked goods

O&M instruction can teach you to:

  • Use a distinctive scent to help you determine what kind of room you are entering (a bathroom or a workshop) or what kind of store you are in (a pizza shop, a shoe store, or a bakery).

Use Your Kinesthetic Sense

Kinesthesia refers to the awareness of your body's movement and position, for example when you bend, reach for a door handle, walk, or turn around.

Kinesthesia can provide many clues about your surroundings, including:

  • The movement of your body while you walk
  • The position of your cane or your guide's arm as you hold it
  • The distance you've walked

O&M instruction can teach you to:

  • Accurately judge (without counting steps) how far to walk in order to reach a hallway or door, a store, or a bus stop
  • Notice if you're walking along the slope of a driveway
  • Anticipate steps and curbs by noticing when your guide has moved upward or downward or your cane has dropped down over an edge or a curb.

Use Visualization: Creating Mental Pictures

Visualization is a process that helps you consciously form accurate mental pictures of people, places, and everyday objects. You can learn to do this by using and recalling the vast storehouse of visual memories and information you've accumulated throughout your lifetime.

For example, it's likely that you have the ability to create an accurate mental picture of every room in your home, as well as the individual items ? furniture, appliances, and decorative objects ? within each of those rooms.

As you continue to create this type of detailed mental picture, you'll be able to more accurately recall the location of doors, windows, major pieces of furniture, and potential hazards and obstacles within your home.

By using visualization in this manner, you can also train your senses (including your remaining vision) to become more responsive to the textures, sounds, odors, and sights in your everyday environment.

You can try using visualization when you meet first meet someone and shake his or her hand. This information will help you create an accurate mental picture of that person:

  • Height: Estimate the location of the person's voice in relationship to you. Is it higher, lower, or approximately the same level?
  • Age: Notice the skin texture. Is it taut and smooth, or is it looser, with protruding veins and ligaments?
  • Body structure: Are the hands long and tapered or are they shorter and more rounded?
  • Additional details: Is the person wearing perfume, aftershave, or jewelry? If you can see an outline of the person, can you determine his or her hair color and style?

Develop a System of Landmarks

You may also find it helpful to develop to develop a system of landmarks in combination with visualization and sensory input. These environmental clues can help you create a more complete "map" of your home that will allow you to feel more secure and in control of your surroundings.

Examples of landmarks that can help you construct this "mental map" can be any of the following:

  • Contrasting floor coverings, such as carpet, tile, or wood, that remind you when you are moving from the kitchen to the dining area.
  • The sounds of birds chirping, leaves rustling in the breeze, or children playing outdoors that indicate the direction of a window, terrace, patio door, or driveway.
  • Different household odors, such as laundry soap, cooking odors, or potpourri, that signal the location of the kitchen, laundry room, or pantry.
  • A distinct change in temperature, such as the cool air from a fan or air conditioner that differentiates your bedroom from a guest bedroom.

Personal Stories

  • Father James Warnke: Living a Well-Integrated Life
    Father Warnke, who was born with retinopathy of prematurity (ROP) and glaucoma, has had a very successful series of careers as mental health counselor and Episcopal priest, to name just a few of his accomplishments.

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